Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteers Carl and Joan Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published September 3, 1972.
Today, when there are only two passenger vessels operating on the lower Hudson River during the summer months, it is difficult to realize how many passenger steamboats were once in operation on all parts of the river. It is even more difficult to realize there were once so many passengers that at times extra steamboats on the same run were necessary to handle the crowds.
When I was a deckhand on the Day Liner "Albany" during the seasons of 1928 and 1929, the Hudson River Day Line operated a fleet of seven steamboats with a total passenger capacity in excess of 25,000. On weekends and holidays it was not unusual to see all seven steamers loaded to full or near capacity. Since the "Albany" was then the oldest Day Liner in service and had one of the smaller passenger capacities, she was often used as the extra steamer on the regular runs.
Labor Day weekend in particular was always a big weekend with especially large crowds. In those days, many families still spent the summer in the Catskill Mountains and it seemed that during those first few days in September everybody would try to return to New York City at the same time.
Carrying the Crowds
On Labor Day weekend 1928, the "Albany" left New York on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. to help carry the crowds leaving the city for the last big weekend of summer. After making all the regular landings, we landed at Catskill at about 8:30 in the evening. There, we were to lay overnight and precede the regular down steamer from Albany on Sunday to carry the big crowds returning to the city from Catskill and Kingston Point.
I remember that early September Sunday morning at Catskill Point almost as if it were yesterday. When I came out of the foc’s’le, the up river air seemed so fresh after being in New York for a month or so. The smell of the flats at low water was just like being home.
The fog banks of September were rising over the river. I could hear a boat’s whistle blowing one long and two short, meaning a tow was coming down. As the sound of the whistle got louder, I recognized it as the whistle of the Cornell tugboat "Osceola."
As I looked out on the river, I caught a glimpse of the “Osceola" just above Catskill Point between one of the banks of fog. She had brick scows, cement barges, canal boats and a small schooner in the tow, strung out astern on about 450 feet of cable. The tug “George W. Pratt" was the helper and pulling alongside the tow.
A Strange Scene
As I stood on the deck of the "Albany," the scene assumed a strange look, for suddenly I couldn’t see the “Osceola" or the tail end of the tow. The fog banks closed in on both ends, leaving only the middle of the tow exposed to view. As a good ebb tide was running, it did not take long for the tow to be lost out of sight down river.
When the morning sun cut the fog away and the river cleared about 7:30 a.m., there was nothing in sight either way up or down the river. Later in the morning after leaving Catskill, the “Albany” overtook the “Osceola” and her tow down off Saugerties.
We preceded the regular down boat, the "Alexander Hamilton," landing at Kingston Point, Poughkeepsie and Newburgh about 15 minutes ahead of the "Hamilton," the two steamers being necessary to handle the large crowds returning to the big city.
The next day, Labor Day, we were the regular up boat to Albany since the big crowds were all going down river. To give an idea of the large crowds, that Labor Day there were three departures from Kingston Point for New York - the “Alexander Hamilton" at 12:40 p.m., the “Hendrick Hudson” at 1 p.m. and the “Robert Fulton" at 3 p.m. That night the “Hendrick Hudson” dead headed back to Catskill and the next day, Tuesday, preceded the old “Albany” to New York, two steamers again being required to adequately handle all the passengers returning to New York.
On Labor Day weekend in 1930 occurred an incident to the “Hendrick Hudson” which turned out to be just about the only unusual caper of her long, virtually accident free career. As was the general practice of the late 1920’s, on that Labor Day the “Hudson” was the regular down boat for New York and the "Albany" the regular up steamer. After arriving at New York, the “Hendrick Hudson" was to dead head back to Albany so as to make her large passenger capacity of 5,500 available for the still large crowds expected on Tuesday.
Going north the weather was hazy and on the upper river there were patches of fog. North of Hudson the river is quite narrow. Running through the fog banks, the pilot on watch apparently kept too close to the west bank and the "Hendrick Hudson” ran hard aground on the sandy bottom just below Van Wie’s Point — only about five miles from her destination. Unable to back off under her own power, she was pulled free at high water on Tuesday by the Cornell tugboats "Pocahontas" and “W. A. Kirk.” She then went back to New York, but too late to be of any help for the waiting passengers.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
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